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Life Story / Obituary
Phyllis Johnson was a wonderful person through and through. If lucky enough to be a guest at one of her elaborately themed parties, you’d never want to leave! A social person by nature, Phyllis enjoyed years of entertaining and never threw a party without the most exquisite and well-planned menu of appetizers and her gourmet specialties. She had a real knack for hosting friends and family and paying attention to the tiniest of details. Her warm personality, friendly smile, and hospitality are the treasures she leaves behind for all those who knew and loved her. Phyllis’ nurturing heart and generous way of being will be greatly missed.
In the year 1939, Lou Gehrig retired from the New York Yankees after a visit to Mayo Clinic confirmed his ALS, or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” The much-loved classic film The Wizard of Oz held its Hollywood premiere, the first commercial air flight crossed the Atlantic, and thousands of Americans watched television for the first time at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City. In the midwest town of Grand Rapids, Michigan, James VanGemert and Marie Michgelson welcomed home their first born daughter, Phyllis on August 22nd. Born three years before her brother, Robert and thirteen and sixteen years before her siblings; Thomas and Constance, respectively, she was always known as the big sister.
Growing up in southeast Grand Rapids, she and her siblings had their fair share of sibling squabbles. With her father busy running Waganaar Travel and her mother tending to the household, Phyllis had a way of keeping her younger siblings in line. One day she even managed to save her younger brother’s life after he had swallowed a penny. She took him by the ankles and without hesitation gave him a large enough shake to miraculously dislodge it! The VanGemert side of the family spent many long lasting summer days together at the family cottage on Gun Lake. No summer was without its share of mischief whenever they were together. By her teenage years, Phyllis, however, enjoyed cruisin’ with the boys and her mother insisted on having her enrolled at Marywood Academy, the all-girls school down the road. She lasted there only one year before heading back to her alma mater, Ottawa Hills High School. After graduation, Phyllis was drawn to the quaint campus of Western Michigan University and pursued a degree in Elementary Education. Later, she went on to earn her Masters in Education from Michigan State University.
Not to be forgotten was the meeting of the love of her life, Richard Johnson. While working at Franklin Park one hot summer, they met and agreed to have their first date at Scottie’s Restaurant. Deeply in love, they were eager to spend the rest of their lives together and were joined in a beautiful marriage ceremony on June 12, 1961, at the East Congregational Church. Both of them enjoyed seeking adventure so it was no surprise that they honeymooned in Bermuda! Returning back home, they settled into an apartment together before building their own home on Grand Rapids’ northwest side. Being teachers, she and Dick spent many of their summers traveling in a brown Chevy van each summer. Although more work with a young family, Phyllis refused to stay in hotels and instead opted for KOA campgrounds. They never regretted those years with their children and even took them to the Bahamas when they were young! Being able to travel and show them the world, brought she and Dick immeasurable joy.
As special as being a mother was to Phyllis, she relished in her years as a grandmother. There simply wasn’t anything that she wouldn’t do for them! Being a talented seamstress, she loved to make special items for her granddaughters over the years. Phyllis even taught one of her granddaughters to knit! Each of her grandchildren was very important to Phyllis and as they grew and moved around the United States, it didn’t stop her from long road trips to visit and spoil them!
After retirement, she and Dick did literally everything together! They visited many art shows, antique shops, vacationed up north, strolled along Florida beaches, traveled to Europe together, and enjoyed many cruises. They loved to entertain which led to Phyllis’ desire to take cooking classes often perfecting recipes or dishes they tried on one of their trips. In addition to her skills in the kitchen, she also enjoyed her time on the golf course or curled up with one of her favorite David Baldacci novels. She and Dick thoroughly enjoyed making the most of life and their time together before he passed away in December of 2015. Described as overprotective at times, yet kind-hearted and fun-loving, Phyllis’ warm collection of fond memories will be cherished and lovingly remembered.
Phyllis K. Johnson of Grand Rapids, MI age 77, passed away May 29, 2017, at Spectrum Butterworth Hospital. Phyllis was born August 22, 1939, in Grand Rapids to the late James and Marie (Michgelson) VanGemert. She was also preceded in death by her husband of 54 years, Richard L. Johnson. Phyllis was an educator with Comstock Park Public Schools for over 30 years. She was very social and had a large circle of friends, but her most cherished possession was her family, especially devoted to her three grandchildren. Phyllis will be sorely missed by her sons, David (Lisa) Johnson of Westlake, OH and Stephen Johnson of Grand Rapids; grandchildren, Christopher Johnson, Allison (Tom Boggs) Johnson and Kate Johnson. She is also survived by her brothers, Robert (Marne) VanGemert of Rockford and Thomas (Mary) VanGemert of Grand Rapids; sister, Connie Peck of Walker; nieces, Kristy (Matt) Mazur and Mandy VanGemert; and nephews, John (Laura) VanGemert and Brent VanGemert. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, June 10th at 11 AM at Heritage Life Story Funeral Home, 2120 Lake Michigan Drive NW. Friends may visit with her family from 10-11 AM. Interment will be in Rosedale Memorial Park. Memorials may be made to Blandford Nature Center. Please visit Phyllis' personal webpage to leave a memory or condolence at www.lifestorynet.com